Sometimes explaining that I work in the public relations field elicits disdain, maybe a snort of derision, perhaps a subtle shaking of the head. Then there are all the PR jokes, basically any lawyer joke you've heard, with PR substituted ("What do you call 100 PR practitioners at the bottom of the ocean? A good start.") Some PR people have earned this scorn by publicizing people and products that don't serve to edify the public in any meaningful way. It's because PR work has some less than illustrious connotations that it's all the more important for practitioners to be cautious about what and whom we promote. One redeeming way to create PR that has an "honest" purpose is through cause-related marketing. This method can be a powerful melding of corporate objectives and community benefit.

American Express was the pioneer of cause marketing in the early 1980s when it raised nearly $2 million to restore the Statue of Liberty. Cause-related marketing involves a partnership between a company and a charitable cause, in which the nonprofit receives a real benefit, such as donations, volunteers, or heightened visibility. A company aligns itself with a cause that both reflects the ideals of the company and meets the needs of the charity. Cause-related marketing can be effective on a grand scale, like a credit card company giving a portion of all transactions to feed the hungry or support literacy programs, or on a smaller, grassroots scale, matching a small business with a local charity.

According to Corporate Citizen, a Seattle-based think tank, cause-related marketing is the fastest-growing segment in advertising and PR, increasing tenfold between 1984 and 1994. In 1995, American businesses spent more than $500 million to support charities. This is especially astounding considering how dependent traditional marketing efforts are on quantitative demographic information. Cause-related marketing is predicated more on psychographic data, information based on the lifestyles of particular groups. And now "preference" data is beating out both quantitative and qualitative measurement tools. Preference data looks at how consumers have acted in the past to determine their future purchases. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker, "In order to know what someone wants, what you really need to know is what they've wanted." This relates to cause-related marketing because PR efforts are now targeted at groups that share the same values as your company, making the leap from prospect to customer a short one and keeping the loyalty of current clients.

A recent example of cause-related marketing in my practice is the partnership of a retail store client with the York County Child Abuse and Neglect Council. My client is a big supporter of children's charities, and she wanted a holiday promotion to match her shop's focus and her personal beliefs, and to assist a local charity serving the needs of children. We picked a product that fit well with her store's offerings and the council's mission by selling teddy bears throughout the 1998 holiday season, with a portion of proceeds going to the council. We created advertising that focused on the council, featuring young children holding the teddy bear, and the council's name and address was included in the ads to encourage direct donations. The campaign raised over $1,000 in just six weeks and brought many customers into the shop.

As in many well-intentioned endeavors, there are those who exploit cause-related marketing as just one more way to feed the hype machine. In a misguided attempt to get "good PR," some practitioners will seek an alliance with a charity for all the wrong reasons. Although cause-related marketing isn't completely altruistic (marketers do want recognition for their good deeds), it needs to be done ethically, with consideration for both the corporate and nonprofit entities.

If you are interested in working cause marketing into your plans, the following are some guidelines for forming a partnership:

  • Pick a group you are truly passionate about, rather than just looking for a name with marquee value. Don't pick a cause because it's what all the celebrities are wearing ribbons to endorse. By selecting a nonprofit you fervently support, you will be more likely to stick with it for the long term and create programs that are valuable.
  • Create a program that is of real benefit to the nonprofit. Will it raise money? Encourage people to volunteer? Educate the public on programs? Don't suggest promotions that borrow their name for goodwill yet fail to deliver results.
  • Chose a charity carefully. Talk with the executive director, the development director, and members of the board to get an idea of how the charity is run, how the money is spent, and what their programs entail. Get a feel for how they implement their own public relations campaigns and see if there's an opportunity to cross-promote (mentions in their newsletter, press releases, signage at events).
  • Understand the mission and politics of an organization. You don't want to get involved with a charity that endorses political candidates, issues, or initiatives that aren't a good match for your own ideals.
  • Pick a charity that has resonance with your prospects and customers. If you run a bookstore, consider the public library. If your customers have school-aged children, think about supporting Junior Achievement. Know your customers' lifestyle when making a selection.

Finally, don't forget your employees. Encourage (don't require) them to participate. Get input on what charities they're already involved with - there may be a group out there doing great work quietly that you'd like to support financially and through in-kind donations.

Copyright © 1999 Kimberly L. McCall